Monday, February 20, 2012

The Scarlet Letter

Book Review

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I never had this on any of my reading lists for school. Ever. Not middle school. Not high school. Not college. Not ever.

So here I am, an adult who had absolutely no idea what this book was about or that it is often considered one of Hawthorne's best works.

What was I reading during all those English classes?

Shakespeare. I got a fair dose of Shakespeare in high school and loved it. But beyond that, I don't know. Those anthologies of literature left little impression on me. Except maybe The Pearl and The Gift of the Magi.

Ah. And To Kill a Mockingbird. That left an impression. But that wasn't in an anthology.

Then in college, there were Beloved and We have Always Lived in the Castle. I didn't like these as much, but they certainly left impressions.

But there is so much more than just these.

Hence, my desire to fill in the enormous gaps. Hence, The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter

Set in a Puritan village outside of Boston, this novel revolves around notions of good and evil. Society has determined their version of good and evil (doesn't it always?) and imposes consequences for those who transgress.

Here we have a young woman who is married, but her husband is away. We don't where he is. She gives birth to a child, and so the evidence of her sin is present for all to see. In addition to the child, the woman is required to wear a scarlet letter 'A' on her chest for ever more, to always identify her. She refuses to identify her sinful partner. He doesn't have the gumption to identify himself, stand beside her and receive the community's scorn.

In short order, her husband arrives on the scene, but does not identify himself. He keeps his identity a secret, and then requests that she do so too. And then he pledges to find his wife's sinful partner and enact revenge on him.

Thus begins our story. I liked the quick presentation of the situation. The remainder of the story doesn't move as quickly. We have met the characters and the action is given to us in narrative instead of dialogue.

The language and grammar is old, and the sentence structure is tedious. The style is labor intensive to read, with many interjecting clauses between subject and predicate.

Given all of that, I really liked the unexpected ending. Well, unexpected for me. There's a twist, and then a twist on the twist, and then we are presented with a narrative of what came after.

While this is anything but modern reading, it is a good use of Puritanical America to demonstrate the themes of good and evil. These themes come back even in today's stories and movies, like Star Wars. Studies of good versus evil will forever be the makings of good stories.

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